This year, for the first November in my literate life, I had a month free. Every other year up until now, I’ve been in school. To celebrate my freedom, I decided to take on another ill-advised, stressful project with absurd deadlines and unreachable standards: NaNoWriMo.
I knew going in that 50k in a month was not doable for me. Even at my brightest, healthiest, most energetic self, I’m a slow writer. I like to mull things over before I commit them to the page, to roll words around like bright marbles, trying to find the prettiest one. It’s not a bad thing; it’s just how I work. The point of NaNoWriMo is much the opposite: write as much as you can, as quickly as you can. Don’t stop, don’t think too hard about it, don’t edit; just let it flow. It’s an approach that’s designed to get over the fear so many aspiring writers have of actually writing. Write 50k in a month, and after that everything seems easy.
In an effort to set myself up for success, I set my goal for 20k, which felt more doable. Which shakes out to roughly 600 words a day, if you’re counting it that way. For a slow writer, that’s still a lot. I wanted to use the month to really focus on getting through the major plot points of the story I’m working on. I figured a framework would help keep me on task and get me through some of my stuck points.
My grand plan was complicated by illness and its treatments. In mid-October, I was put on beta blockers to deal with a persistent heart rhythm problem. The heart rhythm issue made me tired and spacey; the drugs made me exhausted and completely unable to hold a sentence together in my mind. For context, I also have fibromyalgia, so I know from exhaustion. It was debilitating, not just for my writing but for my entire life; what made it worse was that my hobby, my escape, was taken from me. I mostly slept a lot. I fought with my doctors to get my dose down to something I could live with. The side effects were still awful, but at least I could make my eyes point in mostly the same direction and I had a few mostly-alert hours in a day.
Throughout all this, I did my level best with my NaNo project. My goal shifted from a word count to just working on the story every day. Sometimes that meant writing one sentence in a day. Sometimes even that was too much–too complex, too frustrating. My words and images were all greyed out; finding the right ones was a slog through damp fog. Even when I wanted to write, I couldn’t; for someone who’s always been highly verbal, it was a frustrating and alienating experience.
But writing is more than putting words on the page. The thinking and mulling and percolating that’s necessary for me to write well was still something I could do. I thought about my story when I was going to sleep or waiting in the doctor’s office. It gave me something to do with my mind. A lot of that thinking was repetitive, since it was hard for me to hold on to thoughts, but novelty wasn’t the point. The point was simply doing the work, spending the time. Creating in these small, internal ways made me feel more like myself when so much of my life felt alien and out of control.
This process isn’t actually different from what my process looks like when I’m at my healthiest. The experience didn’t so much alter my process as magnify it. Played in slow motion, I could observe all the ins and outs of my brain as it works through things. It didn’t totally allay the frustration of being unable to write, but having to struggle so much for creation made those thoughts more precious to me.
We live in a culture that wants everyone to produce more things faster. Being disabled makes that monumentally hard. NaNo, as well meaning and useful to some as it is, is very much a product of that ethos. NaNo is the domain of the external and extemporaneous processors, those who make things up on the fly. That’s not a bad thing, but all this focus on fast production and word counts obscures both the story work that goes into writing, and the people who do that work slowly. It’s easy to feel bad about taking things slow when other people are posting their skyrocketing word counts; in some ways the structure of NaNo, with its public word meters and talk of “winning” fosters that kind of competition.
But, and here is the crucial thing: writing is not a competition, and there’s not a right way to do it. Making up stories is not something you can lose at. Even if getting words on a page is hard for whatever reason, all of that thinking and creating that goes on inside your skull is still valuable; it still matters. All that stuff I made up in my head gave me somewhere to go when things were crappy–how could it not matter?
For me, trying to get around the false starts and slow thinking doesn’t change the fact that that’s how my brain and body like to work, particularly when I’m very ill. I can’t optimize away my slowness, and I don’t want to. I got off the drugs not so much because I wanted to produce faster, but because a side effect of beta blockers is depression and I get enough of that on my own. I haven’t returned to that story yet; I want to give it some time to simmer. I want to roll around in the words that are beginning to bubble up in my mind again; I want to take my time.